CBC Radio One’s The Early Edition

Listen  to Stephen Quinn introduce Margaret Gallagher who interviewed Shelley Fralic and Jim McEwen about Walter Gage.


The following article was posted on the CBC website:

‘Mr. UBC:’ why a university prof and ‘reluctant’ president meant so much to so many

Walter Gage strikes a relaxed pose in his office in 1971. Gage was president of the University of British Columbia from 1969 to 1975.

Walter Gage strikes a relaxed pose in his office in 1971. Gage was president of the University of British Columbia from 1969 to 1975. (Kate Bird)

They called Walter Gage “the Dean of Everything” at the University of British Columbia.

Between 1921 and 1975, he was, at various times, a student, a math professor, the dean of two departments and finally university president.

It was a time of change at the school and in the world around it, according to Vancouver journalist Shelley Fralic, who has written a new biography of Gage, The Age of Walter Gage.

“He was known throughout the campus for his generosity; for his wild, crazy teaching style with chalk dust flying everywhere; for his humbleness,” Fralic told The Early Edition’s Margaret Gallagher.

“He was Mr. UBC.”

Fralic described Gage as a funny, bombastic professor whose courses were extremely popular.

Even after his official retirement as president, he continued to teach and stayed involved in the UBC community. He died in 1978.

Walter GageGage’s lectures were popular at UBC, and he was said to frequently leave those lectures coated in chalk dust. (Kate Bird)

Nutty professor

Unlike many of his fellow pupils, Jim McEwen, who was interviewed for the book, was registered for the class he took with Gage.

He says many others stood in the back or snuck in to attend his lectures.

“He did remember the name of every student there. Years later, walking around campus, he’d walk up and say, ‘how’s it going, Jim? How’s it going financially?'” McEwen recounted.

When McEwen said his response was, “A little tight,” Gage secured him a $500 bursary with the only condition being that the favour be paid forward some day.

Fralic says that wasn’t out of the ordinary for Gage. If a student was short on money for courses, he would sometimes just pull $100 out of his pocket, she said, and he wasn’t a stickler for having it paid back.

Walter GageUBC Engineering students push Walter Gage in a car they built called the Wally Wagon, designed for an international competition in 1972 that UBC won. (Kate Bird)

‘Fish out of water’

During Gage’s tenure as president, the UBC board allowed students to join it, Fralic said. McEwen says he was one of the first student senators.

He broke from tradition in his home life as well, according to Fralic. A bachelor his entire life, he turned down the massive home on Marine Drive, dubbed the White House, where other presidents had lived — complete with gardeners, tennis courts, and a waterfront view.

Instead, he lived with his mother in a South Granville apartment.

The school tried to rent out the then-empty house, but had no takers. Gage instead had it converted into classrooms.

“I would call him the reluctant president,” McEwen said.

“Gage was considered to be the only person who could lead the university, but in many ways he was considered a fish out of water. He would much rather be… teaching students.”

Fralic’s new book, The Age of Walter Gage, will be launched Feb. 15 at the University Golf Club in Vancouver.

With files from Margaret Gallagher and CBC Radio One’s The Early Edition